This Saturday, trainer Bill Mott brings his two-time Grade 1 winner Ron the Greek to The Spa to tackle eight others in the $750,000 Grade 1 Whitney Invitational Handicap.
This race is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge race. If a horse is nominated for a Breeders’ Cup race and wins a challenge race, they will receive the following:
- An automatic starting position in the corresponding Breeders’ Cup race
- Both the pre-entry AND entry fees paid.
- Travel allowance of $10,000 for North American runners and $20,000 for International runners when they start in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
- An award of $10,000 to the person nominating the foal or horse
The five year old didn’t have a great start to the 2011 campaign as he went seven races without a win. This coming off the heels of a 10 month absence from racing. Everything started to come together towards the end of 2011 while stabled at Aqueduct. He won the Sunny and Mild Stakes, then came right back to win the Queens County Stakes. He was given a few weeks off from December to end of January. He returned to finish 2nd to Mucho Macho Man in the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic Stakes at Gulfstream Park. In an interesting move, Mott shipped him to Santa Anita this past March to race in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1). It was the right decision as he won against 12 others.
After his Southern California excursion, he was shipped to Oaklawn Park to run in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2). Despite the traffic troubles throughout the race, he still managed to get up for second, a couple of lengths behind Alternation. After two months off, he was entered in the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs and narrowly got up to defeat Wise Dan by a head. Others in the race included Alternation, Nates Mineshaft, Nehro and Mission Impazible. It’s been quite the successful stretch for this horse considering he didn’t win from January 23, 2010 to November 17, 2011. A span of 22 months and nine races. He will be a serious late running threat once again this weekend.
Amazingly enough, there is only one other career Grade 1 winner in the field. After winning the Donn Handicap (G1) earlier this year at Gulfstream, Hymn Book has gone three races without a win. He ran 4th in the Oaklawn Handicap, 5th in the Pimlico Special Stakes (G3) at Pimlico and most recently 2nd in the Suburban Handicap (G2) at Belmont Park. The Shug McGaughey trained six year old has run well, just not well enough to take home the wins. He and Ron the Greek will need a quick setup early on to allow them to make up enough ground late.
One of the speedsters in the race will be the Rich Dutrow trained Trickmeister. After winning five straight races to kickoff his career, he’s only 1 for 3 since. He attempted graded company for the first time in the Donn Handicap. He led until the top of the stretch in the 1 1/8 miles race but faded to finish 6th. He came back to first level stakes and was victorious in the Vanlandingham Stakes at Belmont Park. Last time out in the Suburban Handicap, he led again until the top of the stretch, but was caught by Mucho Macho Man and Hymn Book. He finished 3rd beaten 3 lengths for 2nd and another 2 1/2 lengths for the win. The only way he will win this race is if no one decides to challenge him on the lead and jockey Ramon Dominguez can keep him relaxed enough. If there is one rider at Saratoga who could do it, it would be Dominguez.
The horse who will most likely contest the lead with Trickmeister is Endorsement. This five year old has only raced 10 times in his career. He broke his maiden 3rd time out at Oaklawn Park on February 20, 2010, then came back to win the Sunland Derby (G3) on March 28, 2010. Unfortunately, he did not get to race again until December 10, 2011. After missing almost 21 months, he returned to finish 2nd in an Allowance Optional Claiming $62,500 at Gulfstream Park. A month later he finished 2nd again in the same class. Third time off the layoff (which is always the best race for a horse) on February 1, 2012 he finally made it back to the winners circle. It took nearly two years to do so, but it was well worth the wait. He set the Gulfstream Park track record for 1 1/16 miles in a time of 1:42.35. He went gate to wire. The record still holds. In late April, he was shipped to Lone Star Park and won the Texas Mile Stakes (G3). His first true test since returning came in the Pimlico Special Stakes. He led much of the race until the final 1/16 mile when he was surpassed by Alternation and Nehro. He was one length behind the two and they were only a nose apart. His most recent effort came in a disappointing 7th and last place result. He sat off the lead but failed to menace. Martin Garcia has ridden him the last two races but trainer Eoin Harty elects to put Joel Rosario on this time.
The five year old Todd Pletcher trained Rule made a successful return to the track after missing nine months. It was a rough 2011 in which he had one win out of eight races and that came in the non-graded Birdstone Stakes at Saratoga. Of those eight races, he finished second just once and had three thirds. His last race of 2011 was a 7th in the Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap (G2) on October 8. Despite missing 9 months, he returned to defeat a small field of five in the Monmouth Cup Stakes (G2) at Monmouth Park on July 7. If the pace is hot early on, expect jockey Joe Bravo to sit him off the pace. If the pace is not as quick as we expect, he could make a push for the lead. This is a competitive field and were still not sure what to expect with this being his second race off the layoff. He was solid in the Monmouth Cup Stakes, but it was a small field with only one true competitor.
That one competitor is the other Bill Mott trainee in this race Flat Out. By most standards, 2011 was a successful campaign. He took home wins in the Suburban Handicap (G2) and Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (G1) as well as runner-up performances in the Whitney Invitational Handicap (G1), Woodward Stakes (G1) and Lone Star Park Handicap (G3). He finished 5th beaten just over 3 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Mott quickly brought him back 20 days later for the Clark Handicap (G1) and he finished 3rd. In 2012, he started with a 12th place finish in the Ft. Lauderdale Stakes (G3) on turf at Gulfstream Park. The following month he returned to dirt and finished 5th in the Donn Handicap. Clearly not the same horse we saw most of 2011. It would be five months before seeing action again and that was the runner-up performance to Rule in the Monmouth Cup Stakes. After a bobbled break, he could not catch up and lost by 1 1/2 lengths. He’s been training well at Saratoga and could go off at a good price considering his lack of races and mediocre results since last year. If he can return to midseason 2011 form, he might be in the mix.
Caixa Eletronica has done it all this year. He won the six furlongs Rise Jim Stakes at Aqueduct, 1 1/8 miles $1,000,000 Charles Town Classic (G2) and the six furlongs True North Handicap (G2) at Belmont Park. The Charles Town Classic was certainly a surprise but it didn’t have an abundance of quality older males. He tried the Met Mile and was a distant 4th behind Shackleford, Caleb’s Posse and To Honor and Serve. Last out, he finished 5th in the James Marvin Stakes (G3) to kickoff the Saratoga meet. You just wonder if all the travel and back and forth between six furlongs, seven furlongs, one mile and longer distances are taking a toll on this seven year old. I believe Pletcher should keep him at 6-7 furlongs and create some consistency in his performances.
The Ian Wilkes trained Fort Larned comes in off a strong gate to wire performance in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3). At first glance you might think its not that impressive considering its a race at Prairie Meadows, but he did defeat quality horses such as Successful Dan and Awesome Gem. This four year old colt looks to be rounding into form. If you throw out his 8th place performance in the Stephen Foster Handicap, he finished 2nd just a length behind Successful Dan in the Alysheba Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs, ahead of Mucho Macho Man, and Nates Mineshaft as well as won the Skip Away Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream. He’s won 3 of 6 races in 2012 and finished on the board in five of the six. I don’t believe he wants anything to do with the speed in this race. He will sit off the pace and make a move as they turn for home. If the pace is quick early on, he could be a player in exotic bets at a decent price.
The final horse in the field is Canadian invader Hunters Bay. The longest shot on the board heads to New York to see if he can compete on the big stage. A lightly raced five year old by Ghostzapper started his career late as a three year old, then missed several months at the end of 2010 and early 2011. He has spent most of his time in Allowance Optional Claiming races at Woodbine. However in 2012, he’s put together a three race winning streak including back to back graded stakes. He won the Eclipse Stakes (G3) in near record time for 1 1/16 miles. His final time of 1:42.63 was just 1/5 off the Woodbine track record. His last race was a win in the 1 1/4 miles Dominion Day Stakes (G3) where he once again defeated Pender Harbour, winner of two legs of the Canadian triple crown last year. He has the perfect rate running style that will allow him to sit off the expected quick pace. If he is indeed getting better with each race, he just might get in underneath to hit the board. He will go off at a long price.
Consistency always merits most respect when it comes to the top races at Saratoga. Ron the Greek hasn’t been worse than 2nd since July of last year and has won two of the biggest races of 2012. He is the main threat to win. Fort Larned has won 3 of his last five races with a 2nd in the other. He rebounded quite well at Prairie Meadows after a dull performance in the Stephen Foster. I like him to be in the mix. Hymn Book should be able to make his late move from far back after an early speed duel. Look for him to come flying down the middle of the track. Flat Out certainly has class in this field and I expect him to be better second race back from layoff. I don’t think he will win this race but will hit the board.
Ron the Greek, Fort Larned, Hymn Book and Flat Out
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